If You Cannot Catch, You Cannot Play
By Darren Fenster
We’ve all heard- and likely preached- the expression, “pitching and defense win championships.” There is a lot of truth to that statement, where if a team has the ability to get outs out of the opposing lineup, then that team’s runs are going to be very hard to come by. But what exactly is pitching and defense, in their most basic form? Let’s look at a routine ground ball hit to the shortstop: the pitcher throws the ball, and following contact, the shortstop must catch it, then throw it across the diamond where the first baseman has to catch it to record the out. If we can see our game through a perspective of playing catch, it is easy to understand why a player’s ability to throw and catch the baseball is the most important skill to master in the sport. Pitching and defense - the two things that most believe are vital in order to win - are simple extensions of playing catch. The teams that play catch the best are generally the best teams.
DEVELOPING A THROWING PROGRAM
If the ability to win is a direct result of the ability to play catch, then we need to work every single day to improve that skill and to do so, we need to create a throwing program. By giving your team a consistent, organized routine of playing catch every day along with your standard of expectation that comes with it, your players can’t help but improve their own individual ability of both throwing AND catching the baseball. In order for a team to buy into the importance of playing catch in the grand scheme of the game, a coach has to express as much to his players and hold them accountable when they are not living up to the standard that is necessary to improve.
An example of a simple throwing program could be as follows:
• 30 FEET: T-position: Turned with front (glove) shoulder facing partner. Rotate and throw, finishing over front side.
• 45 FEET: Rock & Fire: Turned with front (glove) shoulder facing partner. “Rock” weight onto back leg, and “fire” weight into the throw onto front leg.
• 60 FEET: Step & Throw: Start facing partner. Step into turn to get front (glove) shoulder to point to target, and throw.
• 90 FEET: Shuffle & Throw: Turned with front (glove) shoulder facing partner. Replace feet (or shuffle, or crow-hop) into throw.
• 120 FEET+: Long Toss: Face partner, move feet, replace feet into throw. Stay on top, keep the ball on a line when throwing it, allowing it to bounce to the partner instead of overthrowing trying to get it there in the air.
Download the USA Baseball Mobile Coach App to find more free throwing drills.
IT’S A DRILL, NOT A WARM UP
Generally speaking, when teams play catch at the start of practice or prior to a game, they use it simply as a means to warm up their arms. With that approach, players won’t get as much out of the activity as they should. To maximize the value of playing catch, coaches need to present it as a drill that will improve BOTH throwing and catching. Every throw won’t be perfect, but every bad throw is an opportunity for players to get better at catching the ball! Once players understand the game in the light of playing catch, combined with a level of accountability held on them by the coach, their attention to the drill of catch will assuredly reach new levels.
MAKE IT POSITION SPECIFIC
Every position on the diamond requires different kinds of throws. Infielders have to be able to throw on the run, while outfielders need to get behind the ball in order to chuck it a long distance to gun down a runner trying to take an extra base, and the best catchers have a short arm-action to nab potential base stealers. With this in mind, it is beneficial to have like-positioned players playing catch with one another (catchers throw with catchers, outfielders with outfielders, etc.), as they can practice their position specific throws at the end of each day’s throwing program.
Some examples of those position specific throws:
• CATCHERS: Throw from stance, with footwork to 2nd or 3rd. Bunt throws.
• INFIELDERS: Quick exchange. Throw off wrong foot. Relay catch.
• OUTFIELDERS: Throw from getting behind and through a fly or ground ball. Relay: pick up ball with back to partner, turn to find target and throw.
Playing catch is as much about focus as it is about actually playing catch, especially for more advanced players. There are days even with professionals when balls are flying all over the place as if they’ve never picked up a ball before. These days are not for a lack of skill, but rather a lack of focus. Rest assured, if you put something on the line during catch as detailed below, you can coerce your players to concentrate.
• KEEP SCORE: Two points for throws to the head, one to the chest. Take away points for errant throws or mishandled catches. Play to 21. This is a GREAT game for younger kids.
• SWITCH & RUN: If a throw gets by, the one who threw it has to run to get it, and his partner must run to switch positions from where they were throwing. Reward them for keeping a bad throw in front (even if it’s not caught cleanly) without making them run.
• HIT THE HAT: Each guy removes their hat at tosses on the ground 10-15 feet in front of them. The goal is to throw the ball on a line to hit the hat on a fly with a focus on staying on top and giving a good hop to the partner.
As with any part of the game, in order to make something important to players, the coach himself must show its importance to them. Few things in baseball are more vital to a team’s success than their ability to play catch, as it’s the most fundamental skill of the game. The teams that play catch the best are usually the teams that win. So essentially, you can practice winning by practicing when playing catch. Take advantage of its true value in the grand scheme of the game, because the truth is, if you can’t play catch, you can’t play!
Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.